“History is not the past,” declared Hilary Mantel in her first Reith Lecture this summer. “It is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.” There are many ways of defining what has “really” happened in the past. As some of my friends watched wild elephants raging around the future Queen in the early episodes of The Crown, they told me that they clicked on pages of Wikipedia, trying to check out the facts…
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Surely there cannot have been a pet raven hopping over the notebooks of the young Princess Elizabeth while she studied constitutional history? It must be a fairy tale. Did the Queen really throw shoes and a tennis racket at her husband in a tantrum during her Commonwealth tour in Australia in 1954? And did she become Queen while up in the branches of a tree in Africa (having beaten off wild elephants)?
As it happens, all these things are quite true. Henry Marten, the Vice-Provost of Eton who tutored the future Elizabeth II in constitutional history, kept a pet raven in his study. The shoes and tennis racket were filmed flying through the air by an Australian film crew as the Duke of Edinburgh beat a hasty retreat from the bungalow east of Melbourne where the royal couple were staying in March 1954.
“I’m sorry for that little interlude,” remarked Her Majesty afterwards to Loch Townsend, the producer who had filmed the incident (then chivalrously opened the back of the camera to expose the footage). “But, as you know, it happens in every marriage.” As for those elephants, I can’t do better than quote Colonel Jim Corbett, the big game hunter who accompanied Princess Elizabeth and her husband on foot through the Kenyan bush to the Treetops Hotel on the day before she became Queen.
“I have seen some courageous acts,” Corbett later recounted, “but few to compare with what I witnessed on that fifth day of February . The princess and her companions, who had never previously been on foot in an African forest, had set out that glorious day to go peacefully to Treetops and, from the moment they left, their ears had been assailed… by the rampaging of angry elephants. In single file, and through dense bush where visibility in places was limited to a yard or two, they went towards those sounds, which grew more awe-inspiring the nearer they approached them. And then, when they came to the bend in the path and within sight of the elephants, they found that they would have to approach within ten yards of them to reach the safety of the ladder…”
Perhaps director Stephen Daldry conjured one or two superfluous arm-wavings as the Duke of Edinburgh stepped forward to shield his wife. But what do you expect, dear viewer?
Every single scene and character in the Netflix series is based on a solidly researched item of history, and you switched on to be entertained by a history drama, not a documentary. The rules of historical drama are different. What you see is both invented and true. The real Macbeth killed King Duncan on the field of battle, not in Glamis Castle, and without the encouragement of his wife or any witches, so far as we know. But imagination can often get you closer to the truth – well, let us say a truth – than a parade of dry facts.
So, no, Winston Churchill did not have an assistant called Venetia Scott who died in the Great Smog of 1952, as depicted in episode four of series one. But Venetia is a painstakingly researched amalgam of the many secretaries who worked for Churchill, taking dictation through the bathroom door while the great man soaked in his tub smoking a cigar – and her death is a symbol of the thousands of smog deaths that inspired Britain’s Clean Air Act of 1955.
And Elizabeth II did not rebuke Winston Churchill and Lord Salisbury after the two men had conspired to conceal Churchill’s incapacitating stroke from the young Queen in the summer of 1953, as shown in episode seven. The truth was not revealed for 32 years, when Churchill’s private secretary, “Jock” Colville, published his memoirs in 1985. So, series creator Peter Morgan imagined Colville admitting the deception in June 1953, when it actually happened, giving the young Queen the chance to deliver a classic lecture in constitutional propriety that brilliantly explains the role played by the Crown in the working of the British constitution. That’s the duty of good drama, isn’t it – to give you the insights that go beyond history?
You can look to historians to organise the scrapings of available evidence about the complexities of the human past. But we look to dramatists for the heartbeat and the tear in the eye – the dazzling insight and the touch of real feeling that give us the sense of actually being there.
By Robert Lacey
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The Crown returns to Netflix for series two in December